What Makes This Heart TickOwners of fast-rising roaster-retailer put premium on quality but aren’t offended by Frappuccino orders
By Dan Leif
Semi-retired pro snowboarder Wille Yli-Luoma and his wife, Rebekah, opened Heart Roasters in Portland in late 2009. Their single-origin creations, Stereo blend and coffee-lab-esque retail space soon became the talk of the Northwest specialty community, and the company currently provides coffee to some of the top cafés in the United States and Canada. Fresh Cup caught up with the owners recently to discuss their decision to enter the inaugural Best American Coffeehouse competition, as well as find out how the company made a name for itself so quickly—and where it may be headed from here.
Q: I was a bit surprised to see you entered the Best Coffeehouse event. It’s not like you guys are wanting for publicity.
Rebekah: When the SCAA was in Portland and a lot of people were coming to the café, my expectations were outshined 100-fold by our staff. It didn’t matter if a customer was from the SCAA show or not. Everyone was stepping up their game, and it was really impressive to me. I thought, “It’s time we share that and speak up a little more.”
Wille: I think we’re trying to be more broad, not just for coffee people. We want to be approachable for the general consumer who might not know about coffee and might want a drink some baristas don’t want to make. We want to engage the regular customer that walks in the door, even if they want a Frappuccino or something. We might say, “Well, we don’t have that, but this is something close.” I think that’s part of why this place is successful.
Q: You’re certainly viewed as one of Portland’s hippest coffee companies—was that something you were going for?
Rebekah: I feel like with specialty coffee and especially in Portland there’s this elitist stigma attached, and quite frankly I feel like we are this focal point where people say, “Oh everyone is just so hipster that hangs out at Heart.” Our focus might be light-roasted, small lots of coffee, and we may have a very particular focus, but we want to make everybody’s experience here enjoyable no matter who they are and where they come from. We are a coffeehouse—this is what we do.
Wille: We didn’t create this space to be a hipster place. It’s just people who enjoy hanging out and having a good cup of coffee and meeting their friends. If you don’t have good product and good customer service, you get nowhere.
Q: What’s been the key to staying on top of both those areas?
Wille: Rebekah is more in charge of the café. She makes sure the staff is doing their job and making sure the business runs smoothly. I’m more in charge of making sure the espresso machines and grinders are working properly and that the coffee is tasting the way I want it to. I also help out Josh [Hydeman, who handles roasting] with figuring out new profiles. Being close to product and tasting it all the time, that’s the most important part of it.
Rebekah: I’m always bringing myself back to the idea that the way you want the business to run depends on the people at the top. You can’t expect things to run flawlessly if things need to be addressed up above. You lead by example. We recognize we’re not perfect, but we’re constantly thinking, “How can we do this better for everyone involved?” Not just customer but also the people working for us.
Q: What’s your strategy been for growing wholesale? You’ve managed to get your coffee in well-respected shops as far away as New York and Montreal.
Wille: Wholesale is growing by word of mouth. People will hear about us and contact us and we’ll get a new account. It’s working, but eventually we have to put more focus on that.
Rebekah: Wholesale and retail are very separate but also intertwined. They both require customer service as well as offering a good product. We want to make sure the product is being served the way it should be and develop relationships with those accounts. People who are serious about serving our coffee understand that. They are all about it.
Wille: Our accounts have been really important in that they give us feedback. They’re not saying, “Hey, your coffee is the best in the world.” They’re saying, “I could see this coffee getting sweeter down the road.” I like that honesty. I don’t see how high-fives are going to get anyone anywhere.
Q: You are on the menu at some cafés that feature several different roasting companies. What are your thoughts on that recent trend?
Rebekah: We actually try to avoid those situations, but we do have some that we took on previously. We knew what we were getting into in the beginning so we’re not going to now say, “Sorry.” What ends up happening in multiple-roaster cafés is it becomes very hard to know what to project. They may order large quantities for two months and then they stop.
Wille: If we took on every account that asked, we would sell twice as much coffee as we do now, but we wouldn’t know what it would be two months from now. I try to avoid that risk. I want to do a slow growth. Right now we’re still a young small business.
Q: Has your perspective on the coffee business changed at all in the two-and-a-half years you’ve been open?
Wille: I’m definitely more strict. When buying green coffee I think more about, “Is this going to be a smart financial decision?” I love Kenyan coffee, but should I buy so much of it? Part of me wants to buy a whole container of it, but I know not every customer that walks in wants to drink a Kenyan coffee. There’s a little bit of compromise now—but not much.
Rebekah: We’ve maintained the core of wanting a café that creates a certain energy—this social atmosphere where you can go and hang out with friends, and where there’s great coffee and the people serving it are super nice. Before Heart existed, we talked a lot about what the café would be like, and I don’t think that’s been forgotten at all. Now we talk about what would it be like to have another café. Not that that that’s happening. You fantasize, but then you’re like, “Wait a minute, I don’t have a day off.” But, yeah, the original idea behind this business has not been lost at all.